SPECIAL REPORT: Ontario on course for a greener future
Posted: 7 October 2009
Author: John Rowley
Canada does not have a brilliant reputation in the fight against climate change. Prime Minister Stephen Harper is on record as a climate sceptic before he came to power. And only last month, Joseph Hansen, a scientist famous for blowing the whistle on the climate problem, said there were few countries that have done more to undermine international efforts to fight climate change in recent years, than Canada. Yet, as I discovered on a visit to Ontario, this vast province, often referred to as the economic engine of the country, is seriously committed to phasing out all coal-fired electricity generation within five years and to becoming North America's leading green jurisdiction.
The inspiration for this ambitious plan comes, it seems, from the province's premier, Dalton McGuinty, the 54-year-old leader of the Liberal Party that swept to power in the 2003 landslide election, and the first political leader in Canada's history to have a biology degree (as well as a law one). McGuinty campaigned for the environment in parliament before becoming premier, and has since pursued a clear policy vision, based on the need to take climate change seriously - and to gain the economic and employment benefits for Ontario of developing a green economy.
Her Indian mission was part of a sustained effort to encourage inward investment from around the world in green and clean technology - and to export green technology once it has been developed on a commercial scale. The premier's 'clean tech mission' to India will follow later this year, taking with him business leaders from 30 Canadian companies.
Green Energy Act
Back in Toronto, and speaking to an international group of journalists, Pupatello said of the 2014 target: "This is really important because that sets a goal that we absolutely have to meet because our industrial requirement for energy means that we have to have enough energy. So we have to change the mix of our energy."
Pupatello adds: "We are fortunate in having a publicly dominant power transmission system in Ontario. So we really are in a position to line up a good policy for developing green energy, with a premium rate for solar, wind, biogas and biomass. We are fortunate too to have in Ontario significant places for the best wind and solar developments - with the agricultural and forestry resources to provide the perfect biomass feedstock." Over the next three years Ontario plans to spend some Cn$2.3 billion on power transmission projects that are expected to create about 20,000 jobs. Many of these projects will bring power from the far north where wind and biomass energy potential is most promising.
Among specific green projects is a loan scheme for 'leading edge' enterprises costing Cn$500 million. Alongside this is an emerging technologies fund to co-invest in venture capital projects and assist private investors. Yet another programme will encourage research and development in green technologies through 'unrivalled tax credits', which can pay back up to Cn$60 for every Cn$100 invested in R & D.
Plug-in electric cars
Ontario also plans to become a world leader in building and driving electric cars - with the aim of having one out of every 20 vehicles electrically powered in Ontario by 2020. Toyota is already involved in this, and a number of leading manufacturers are eying with interest the development of a lithium battery-powered car, developed by an Indian entrepreneur whose company is developing a unique battery power unit that creates no waste in production, emits no pollution in operation and can be recycled after use (see below). To spur on the market, buyers of plug-in hybrid and battery cars will receive a rebate of between Cn$4000 and Cn$10,000.
In Toronto itself there are ambitious plans to green and redesign the city's waterfront over the next 20 years, with large parks, walkways, end leisure facilities. This will complement the restoration and revival of the old distillery district into a pedestrian centre for the arts and entertainment and the creation in the city's abandoned brick works of an evergreen garden centre, farmers market and children's conservation education centre, along with an outward bound headquarters that will increase the leisure use of 26 acres of ravine walks and woodlands.
A recent report on OCETA's work gives examples of 10 of Ontario's clean technology firms, ranging from energy management and lighting control companies to those which process and reduce wastewater and materials. It calls for an extra billion dollars to be raised in equity capital over the next 2-4 years to increase Ontario's competitive edge in the face of the entrepreneurial challenge from across the border and globally.
Alberta's oil sands
Faced with this positive picture from Ontario I asked Sandra Pupatello how this squares with the efforts now going on to develop Alberta's oil sands, with reportedly disastrous environmental impact on huge swathes of that province, pollution of its lakes and groundwater, massive uses of energy and enormous emissions of CO2, that already dwarf those of entire European countries and could exceed all the CO2 emitted by the world's volcanoes by 2020 if the pace of development continues. Was there anything Ontario can do about that?
Her not entirely convincing response was: "We like to think that we do!" She points out that Ontario is, in effect, part of a federation of states, which are acting together to do what they can to limit the environmental impact of tar sands development. Alberta itself, she says, is spending millions of dollars on research into the issue. Ontario, she adds, has a great stake in what they are doing in Alberta. "It generates about half our wealth. We make up 40 per cent of their market share and much of the $100 billion that Alberta Oil and Gas spends in manufacturing for oil sands. Where they don't have the capacity, we do it here. We are helping to solve their problems and have helped set up a fund with other states for collective solutions of the CO2 problem."
With so much of Ontario's economic prosperity at stake, it is difficult to expect a different answer. And within its own borders it does seem that Ontario is pursuing a progressive course, not least for sound far-sighted economic reasons. Ontario is, after all a fast growing highly industrialised province with a rapidly growing immigrant population, which adds around a quarter of a million new inhabitants each year - half of them swelling the population of Toronto.
Pupatello sums up as follows: "In the face of the worldwide climate change agenda we want to show that Ontario, the economic engine of Canada, with its green policy can actually step up to the plate and say 'if Ontario can do it then any jurisdiction in North America can do this'. Its a brave claim which leaves open the question: is the Federal Government listening?
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